I hope you’ll excuse the vagueness in the title of this post, but this is a question I have really been ruminating on and I think its actually far more important than you may think.
I’m a person who is never content with the way things have always been done. I’m constantly asking why and looking to build a better mousetrap if there is even a remote possibility it can be done.
A few months ago I wrote about why window restoration is so expensive. It stirred up a good amount of discussion amongst window restorers and homeowners alike. There was argument against and support for my arguments, but it only led me further into disillusionment with the current process and cost of window restoration.
Today I’m going to pose some crazy thoughts for you and I really want you to approach them with an open mind. Here goes.
The History Window Restoration
As far as I can tell the first generation of window restorers, the pioneers of this field were folks like John Leeke and Bob Yapp. Brilliant and passionate preservationists who began advocating and getting their hands dirty preserving old windows in the 1980s and 1990s.
Today their techniques still guide the decisions (knowingly or unknowingly) of most every window restorer across America. For example, any folks who have learned window restoration from me have just learned my version of the techniques I first learned from these two giants with my small contributions and a little southern flavor.
While there is no hard and fast definition of window restoration I find that everyone does almost exactly the same thing as everyone else.
- Remove the sash
- Strip ALL the paint from jambs and sash
- Replace ropes or chains
- Repair all the damaged wood
- Prime the bare wood
- Glaze the windows with putty
- Paint everything
- Weatherstrip (if needed)
- Put it all back together
Nine steps to a fully restored window. The only differences are regional things like different balances systems or jambs that were left unpainted, or the momentous fight over which paint is better.
We fight over the best wood filler. We argue about long-oil primers versus latex primers, we bicker about which wood is most appropriate, and we snicker at those who use Phillips screws when we all know that slotted screws are more historically accurate, right?
Are Windows Restorers Really That Special?
But nothing has really changed about window restoration since it became a thing in the 1980s. Before then it was simply called “maintenance” and didn’t come with the fancy credentials we have today. There were very few architects who spec’d window restoration. It was a painters job or a glazier’s job. Heck our trade didn’t even exist 50 years ago. How did it become so fancy, expensive, and specialized?
Honestly, I’m just a glorified painter as I really thought about it. I scrape off old paint and put on new paint. Sure I know how to work with glazing putty and tie a bow-knot, but those hardly require a 6 year residency and fellowship. You need one month with a good putty knife and bunch of windows to practice on. That’s it.
So where do I get off charging people thousands of dollars to restore their windows? Like I wrote in my previous post about the cost of window restoration it really comes down to how labor intensive the process is. If it takes you 20+ hours to restore a window and you feel like getting a quality job then a craftsman should cost you between $70-90 per hour. If a plumber can charge $150 per hour is it unfair for a craftsman to charge a little more than half that amount?
That seemed fair to me, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that it is still not entirely realistic to offer that as “window restoration.”
What Do People Want?
You’ve heard the phrase “Beer Budget and Champagne Taste”, right? That seems to be most people when it comes to window restoration, in my experience. They want a brand new looking window and think it should cost around $500-800. That’s a challenge when it costs a company like mine at least $1,000 to produce that window. No room for overhead or profit in that formula. That’s called an expensive hobby if you ask me.
The more I thought about this topic the more I realized that house painting was actually a fantastically comparable service. Let me explain.
When you get a quote on repainting your house what do you expect to get? I would bet that most people are expecting a quick wash of the exterior, a scraping of the sections of the paint that are peeling, some spot priming and then two good coats of a quality paint.
Was anyone expecting the painter to remove every inch of old paint from your siding, repair every little piece of cosmetic damage to the wood, and fully prime the house? I’d venture to say very few people expect that and even if they do they would realize that is an extraordinary task that will come with an equally extraordinary cost.
Why can’t window restoration be the same? Why does it require a full strip of all the old paint, followed by a penetrating pre-treatment, then a long-oil primer that takes a week to dry and two coats of only the finest paint available? Don’t get me wrong it’s the best way to go and will give you the longest lasting product, but that isn’t in everyone’s budget.
F-150 vs Bentley
There is a reason the Ford F-150 has been the #1 selling vehicle (not truck, but of ALL vehicles) in America for the last 36 years. It gets the job done! Why isn’t that #1 seller a Bentley? Would anyone argue that the F-150 is better built than the Bentley? Personal preference always plays a part, but I doubt the quality argument would ever come up.
People choose the F-150 for the price it costs it gets the job done effectively. It has a higher value proposition than the Bentley for most folks. And while many of us might want a Bentley, does anyone need a Bentley?
Redefining Window Restoration
So then, why can’t window restoration be brought more into line with the F-150 and house painting? I’m beginning to believe that we need to redefine the standards of window restoration. There needs to be an option that is equal to the F-150 or the house painter.
Don’t get me wrong that that should be the only thing available. Absolutely not! There will always be a place for best work and I will personally love delivering work like that, but for the average homeowner they seem to want something different and I’m upset that it has taken me this long to realize that.
The New Standard
What should that new standard be? I’ll tell you what I’m doing and you can either agree or disagree. At Austin Historical we are rolling out a wholly redefined serviced call the “New Standard” and I’m excited to see what my market thinks of it.
Here’s what I think needs to be included in a New Standard:
- Remove the sash
- Scrape the jambs and sash free of only the flaky/loose paint
- Sand everything smooth, but not to bare wood
- Spot prime bare wood with latex
- Replace any missing glazing putty
- Paint everything with two coats of paint
- Replace the ropes
- Weatherstrip (if needed)
- Put it all back together
It’s still nine steps like before, but I can tell you that I can do that in less than half the time of a traditional full restoration which means about half the price as well and that is the key. Half the price means half the time and that means I can restore twice as many windows in one year.
That is the goal, right? Save more windows from the landfill? Keep more homeowners from making the mistake of replacing their historic windows and believing the replacement window myth?
I think we need to be unafraid to challenge the assumptions of the past. We need to be comfortable changing the way things have always been done and start thinking about how we can make things better. I think this makes things better. What do you think?
If you want to follow along and see how we are doing on this new challenge to redefine window restoration then please check us out at Austin Historical.
I’m hopeful this will be a sea change for us, but changing people’s assumptions about what window restoration is is tough, and I honestly don’t know what the market will think of this change. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
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I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.